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Spiritual Renewal And The Move Towards Peace

Edy Korthals Altes spoke at the Pari Center on May 17, 2003.

The present world situation gives reason for great concern. Without a concerted move towards a spiritual renewal we are all in for a very difficult time. This spiritual renewal should not be limited to Christians alone as we need the cooperation between all peoples who have a notion of awe and a reverence for the wonder of life in an Ultimate Reality transcending our imagination. Neither do I have in mind a sort of soup where all different religions blend together. Rather each one of us should go deeply into our own roots, whether Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist or Hindu. We should touch the essence of our belief and in this way come up with new creative ideas and approaches that can be applied in areas such as economics, politics, technology, environment and science.

It was in this spirit that I wrote the book Heart and Soul for Europe: An Essay on Spiritual Renewal. It was written from my own Protestant Christian perspective but called for cooperation with all religions.

I have been president of the World Conference on Religion and Peace for five years. This world organisation has been engaged in a number of projects, in particular in Bosnia, Kosovo and Sierra Leone. In Bosnia, for example, we succeeded in setting up an Inter Religious Council in which the religious leaders pledged to cooperate together and refrain from encouraging hatred. The same model was used in Kosovo and in Siera Leone. In the latter case this particular approach has stimulated interest in other African states to similar initiatives.

We must attempt to mobilize the enormous potential for peace within religions. While it is true that in the past religious differences have sown the seeds for war today we must mobilize religion in the service of peace.

I would like now to turn to two issues which I feel are of prime importance today: Security and Economics.


I am deeply concerned with the latest developments in American foreign policy, namely the security strategy that was published in September 2002. This speaks of preventive war and the unilateral use of military force. I would urge anyone who is concerned about these issues to read this document, which can be downloaded from the Internet.

This document clearly states that American policy is directed towards a position of absolute supremacy in our world based on its enormous military, political and economic power. It now looks as if we shall be living in a long period of pax Americana. This means that the whole concept of the charter of the United Nations will be put under the table.

The choice we face is between a system of international relations based on the United Nations or on the preponderant unilateral position of the United States. It is therefore of great importance that institutions, organizations and the general public become aware of this dramatic choice and work together to create a different approach and a different line of thought. In this respect I was particularly interested to read the article in Prospect magazine by the former UK diplomat Braithwaite reexamining the traditional relationship between the United States and Great Britain.

We should also be aware of the enormous destructive power that is now available with modern arms. Special attention should be given to the research and development of weapons of a truly diabolic character. Already now large numbers of people can be burned alive, suffocated to death or shredded to pieces. The terrible effects of the cluster bombs, daisy cutters, MOAB and laser weapons are however until now unsufficiently made public. A whole new category of directed energy weapons is now in development. More is in preparation! Although the Geneva Convention bans the development and use of some of these kinds of weapons is the wording of the protocol unfortunately rather loose.

Such weapons stand as one example, in one field, where thousands of brilliant scientists have used their intellect to produce arms for mutilation and destruction without any moral sense. Equally to blame are the politicians and the managers of the arms industry. In short there is a major moral disorientation in the area of security.

But I would like to qualify my remarks about scientists by pointing to the Pugwash movement, founded on the Russell-Einstein Manifesto. Here scientists from all over the world cooperate in order to prevent the use of arms for mass destruction. This is a very hopeful sign and earlier when I spoke of cooperation between religions I would like to add that quite a number of these scientists hold to no religious belief yet all are united by a common love for humanity and a deep sense of awe and reverence. Having said this I must again emphasize that notwithstanding, preparations for future wars are in full swing.

A few years ago Pugwash received the Nobel Prize for peace. Today Pugwash is a good example of how conscience can work in people. Some scientists said ‘no’ to acts against humanity. Today I would like to add religion as a mobilizing force for saying ‘no.’ Religion, I would propose is a strong motivating force for taking a stand.

We need a new concept of security. The old concept dates back to the Romans who said, ‘If you want peace, prepare for war.’ The new concept I would propose is exactly the opposite, ‘If you want peace, prepare for peace.’ While this may sound simplistic it is difficult to put into practice as the application of justice and solidarity in international political and economic relations require sacrifices from ‘those who have.’

I would give three reasons why the old concept of ‘security’ is no longer valid

a)The extreme vulnerability of modern society
b)The tremendous destructive power of modern arms and terrorism
c)The interdependence between nations

These three elements are closely interconnected. It is therefore imperative to apply justice and solidarity in our international relations. If not disaster looms!


Not only economic justice is involved but also political justice. A clear example of which is the current situation in the Middle East. There must also be justice in the economic world situation where 1/5 of the world population enjoys a high standard of living while 1/5 lives in terrible poverty, millions dying every year of hunger. This ‘North South gap’ between nations is increasing! This is not so much caused by actions or non-actions of ordinary people themselves but, to a great extent, by policies for which the highly developed nations are responsible.

To take one example, the agricultural policy of the EU allows for the dumping of high grade products in Africa at very low prices. In turn the local farmers cannot compete because their own products are not of the same level in price and quality. Another example is the high tariffs that are applied to products from the Third World, which means that the few products they can export will have great difficulties to enter on our markets. There are many more examples, all of which goes to show that the development aid from Europe and the USA destined for the Third World is only a fraction of the damage that we cause to the economies of these same countries.

Our society has become dominated by economics, which has an impact on all sectors of our lives. Because of the loss of the basic sense of reverence, of the essence of spiritual life, the deeper meaning of economics got lost. Instead we have allowed ourselves to become dominated by greed and consumerism. It is this same desire for profit and greed that has come to dominate the management of many corporations.

It is now time to redefine economics in a way that it will serve all people. All must have their basic needs fulfilled within the limits our planet imposes. Production, distribution and consumption must all be seen in this context.

I would like to conclude by exploring three myths that underlie our present economic system,

1)The notion that each person has unlimited material needs. We are told to ‘consume more’ which is totally contra to any religion. What is more, it is a self-defeating program that is contrary to humanity in general. The New Testament is clear ‘you shall not live by bread alone.’ Our deeper needs are not for material goods but for inner growth.

2)Unlimited Growth. The economy, my firm, my salary should all grow. In a finite planet this is total nonsense. This maxim of growth has brought about great ecological damage.

3)Idolatry of the Free Market. I am in favor of a free market but one that is set in the context of social and human considerations. We need to apply means to avoid the ‘law of the jungle’ in the market place.

In my opinion we need to change fundamentally our approach towards society and economics both in our thinking and our daily action. All this is closely related to the inner sense of awe and reverence.


During the question period that followed Edy Altes’s talk he pointed out that his book has two parents: concern and hope. Great concern is justified but hope and vision are absolutely indispensable. Things should and can indeed change. He also stressed that we all have an obligation to serve. Each of us should be engaged in an inner struggle which those elements within us that are negative and self-serving. None of us is perfect but each one of us can live in hope.

Umberto Brunelli, who teaches history in high school, expressed the anguish he felt in listening to Edy Altes. He has attempted to convey such things to his students and encourage them to think, but is shocked at their indifference. Altes felt it important to express the seriousness of the situation. We have to act and cannot be complacent. They should be shown the facts as they are; they should indeed be shocked by them. On the other hand there was always a danger in driving young people to despair, a sense of powerlessness and even depression. One cannot push young people into action, they must decide for themselves. This is not easy as their world has been so dominated by globalization, leisure, television and the Internet. But a perspective for a livable future will only arise if people assume their responsibility. That so many young people are working with great dedication in volunteer organizations is a reason for hope!

Author bio

Edy Korthals Altes was the former Dutch ambassador to Poland and to Spain. He resigned from this position in order to take a public stand on what he felt was the ‘madness’ of the arms race and what he considered to be outdated notions of national security. Since then he has worked on East-West relations, Third World issues and is President of the World Conference of Religion and Peace as well as vice-president of the Dutch branch of Pugwash.